By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
Missouri Southern converted two first-half interceptions into touchdowns and defeated South Dakota School of Mines & Technology 47-20 to celebrate homecoming Saturday afternoon at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
After Missouri Southern drove 72 yards for a touchdown on its first possession, the Lions took a 14-0 lead when linebacker Gatlin Ridgway returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown with 9 minutes, 14 seconds left in the first quarter.
“I was just in the right spot at the right time,” said Ridgway, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior. “I just did what the coaches tell you to do, get to the nearest sideline, and it all worked out.”
Ridgway led the Lions with nine tackles, including four unassisted, and stopped a drive by the Hardrockers late in the third quarter when he forced a fumble after a completed pass.
“During practice, the coaches always tell us to hustle the ball,” Ridgway said. “When you hustle the ball, good things happen.”
The Lions (4-2) rushed for 412 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Jay McDowell midway through the fourth quarter that gave MSSU a 47-7 lead.
McDowell led a balanced rushing attack with 106 yards on nine carries. Starting quarterback Kellen Cox rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries and Travis Hurd had 80 yards on six carries.
Cox’s first touchdown was set up early in the second quarter when Donterrius Thomas picked off a pass that deflected off the hands of a Hardrockers’ receiver and returned it to the MSSU 41-yard line.
“I was coming into my zone and saw the quarterback throw it and made a play on it,” said Thomas, a 5-10, 195-pound junior. “It set the tone for our offense and got us going. We got a turnover and scored a touchdown. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Two plays later, Cox kept the ball on an option to his right, cut back across the field and outran the South Dakota Mines secondary for a 20-7 lead.
“Those are things you work on, tip ball drills,” said MSSU head coach Daryl Daye. “We talked about that first drive. We established our running game and went for it on fourth down. We got off to a positive start and it remained the rest of the game.”
The Lions marched 72 yards in nine plays on their opening drive, highlighted by a 41-yard run by Hurd that gave the Lions a first down at the Hardrockers’ 14.
Faced with fourth-and-2 from the 6, the Lions called timeout, then took a 7-0 lead when Ne’Ronte Threatt scored on the next play.
MSSU took a 28-7 lead into halftime with a four-play, 70-yard drive that featured runs of 24 yards by Giresse Forchu and 27 yards by Threatt. On first down at the Hardrockers’ 16, Hurd recovered a fumbled pitch and darted in the end zone with 5:33 left.
The Hardrockers’ only touchdown of the half came after a 51-yard pass to Xavier Matthews from quarterback Mike Zanutto late in the first quarter gave South Dakota Mines a first down at the MSSU 12.
Jahmel Rover, who led the Hardrockers with 126 yards on 25 carries, scored two plays later on a 7-yard run that cut the Lions’ lead to 14-7.
MSSU defensive tackle Brandon Williams tied the school record for most sacks in a career when he teamed with Ryon Phillips on a third-and-10 play on the Hardrockers’ first possession of the second half.
After a short punt into the wind, the Lions took a 35-7 lead when Cox ended a six-play, 55-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring run.
“Kellen did a really nice job,” Daye said. “We really improved in that area, getting the ball out on the perimeter. All of our kids were getting to play from the end of the third quarter on and Jay got some reps in.”
Cox, who completed 2 of 4 passes for 72 yards, found Landon Zerkel open along the near sideline on the Lions’ next play from scrimmage. Zerkel paused after the catch before three downfield blockers led the way for a 58-yard touchdown and a 41-7 Lions lead with 6:23 left in the third quarter.
South Dakota Mines (1-5) scored two touchdowns in the last six minutes of the game. Zanutto found Joey Obendorfer for a 24-yard touchdown pass, then the Hardrockers recovered a muffed kickoff inside the Lions’ 1-yard line and scored on a quarterback sneak by Evan Sanders with 4:58 remaining.